Thousands of kids around the country started school for the first time this week – a major milestone in their life and the lives of their parents. For many parents the first school day also represents the culmination of a lot of sleepless nights and concern about everything from which school to what starting age is best for your kid.
In my case, Ned and I quickly agreed on the school but up until the very end we questioned whether Susie should go to school this year or next. In Victoria, children starting primary school must be five by the 30th of April. This puts a clear limit on the minimum age but leaves a lot of flexibility at the other end.
For understandable reasons it seems that nobody wants their child to be the youngest, so more and more parents are holding their children back. Unfortunately, this adds a second level to the issue of school readiness. You first have to ask yourself whether your child will cope with the demands of school (things like following instructions in a classroom and not freaking out if they can’t find their school bag). But now you also have to consider the question of whether your child will cope with the demands of their peer group, which seems to be getting older.
Our Susie turns five in March. She could not be more ready for the classroom. But at the same time we know that some in her class will likely be up to 18 months older than her (children born as early as December and even November are frequently held back to start at age six).
There will obviously always be some kids that are younger than others, but I don’t understand why they just don’t draw a line in the sand. Of course if a child has severe developmental delays or is extraordinarily advanced then exceptions should be made. But within the spectrum of normal development I can’t help but think the current degree of flexibility is just making the decision harder for parents as the age gap creeps up with every new crop of parents adjusting for the fact that others are holding their kids back longer.
Another problem with this trend is that it can only exaggerate current social inequalities in education. The current cost of childcare is so much higher than the costs of sending children to the local primary school, that children in less affluent families often end up going to school sooner. So when it comes to competing for university and higher education places this children are judged against those that have had better access to educational resources – and are up to a year older when they go to sit their final exams.
In the end we decided that Susie was so ready for school that we should just send her and see how she goes. If it turns out that she is out of her league in the social jungle of the playground, then we can always hold her back down the track.
And so it begins …
If you are wondering how the first school day unfolded, it is fair to say that despite all the planning and consideration, the first day of school was not exactly how we pictured it … and Susie’s young age was the least of our concerns.
Somewhere in the back of my brain I had an image of my daughter’s first day of school. It involved some heartfelt words of encouragement and maybe a tearful hug goodbye before Susie stoically headed through the doors of an old school building, crossing a threshold that would signal the beginning of the next big stage in her life: the school years.
The lead up to the day went well. Susie was so excited about school starting that we decided a few weeks ago to re-purpose the Christmas countdown clock. So last night, as the snowman’s wooden carrot nose indicated there was only one more sleep to go, we did a final stocktake of all her new school paraphernalia and double checked everything was named.
At exactly 7:00am Susie ran into our bedroom (evidence the Hello Kitty alarm clock purchased for $7 off eBay actually worked). We had a final chat about the day.
Q: What are you most excited about?
A: “My new schoolbag.”
Q: Is there anything you are worried about?
A: “No, nothing … I know the slide is not too big.”
We had breakfast and Susie got dressed into her brand new over-sized school uniform. It was 7:30 and we were looking good for the 8:50 start time. It was then I noticed Susie furiously scratching her head.
As I watched her scratching as if there were tiny little bugs burying into her scalp, my heart sunk … could it possibly be that tiny little bugs are burying into her scalp! Was Susie suffering from her first ever case of head lice today? Her first day of school! Our first day of school (it surely is as much about the parents as the kids on milestone days like this).
As I checked her hair I saw a little critter trying to escape. I got it, squashed it and quickly googled “head lice” and confirmed my fears. The captured critter was a perfect match. Susie had head lice and was due at school 80 minutes. We couldn’t send her off on her first day covered in lice … ah #@$#!
I screamed out to my husband who immediately appreciated the gravity of the situation. Our local chemist opened at 8:00am so he headed off to get the fastest acting head lice treatment available.
By 8:20 Susie was in the bath with her head covered in lice treatment. After a 10 minute wait for the treatment to work, there was a quick shampoo, a rinse and uniform back on. At 8:40 I attempted to blow dry her hair while Ned quickly packed Max into the car.
At 8:52 we arrived at the school … we had made it!
Just as we thought we could relax, we walked into the pandemonium of 60 prep kids and their parents trying to work out where everything goes and to get a couple of quick photos while unfamiliar faces introduced themselves.
The new school principal leaned down and said “You know my name is Sue and my friends often call me Susie too … is this your little brother?” Susie nodded and seemed happy to know someone shared her name.
OK, so there was finally something tangible to lock onto. I told Susie to join the other kids at one of the tables and to draw a picture of her family for the other kids and teachers. She seemed relieved to be assigned this task and set to work. We gave her a final kiss goodbye but she was now shooing me away because I was interrupting her drawing … so with a final wave, Ned picked Max up and we both headed back out through the door with the noise and chaos starting to settle down behind us.
As we arrived back home Ned turned to me with a smile and said, “that was not exactly the life memory I was expecting.”
I guess it will be months or even years before we will know whether we made the right decision about sending Susie to school this year … but for today at least it seems we all made it through.